Well, once again the dreaded Tax Day has come again in the United States. As millions scramble to finish their returns at the last minute, and millions more are reminded for a moment about how painful, frustrating, and stupidly complicated this year’s taxes were, perhaps you will give me a moment to indulge a fantasy:

Imagine there’s no 1040
It’s easy if you try
No capital gains tax
Eating away our pie
Imagine all the people
Keeping all their pay…

Imagine there’s no AMT
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to evade or cheat for
And no Schedule-C too
Imagine all the people
Earning cash in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But we’re growing every day
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will keep its pay!

(With no apologies to Lennon, that socialist twit.)

While many taxpayers are lucky enough to use 1040-EZ (as long as they don’t mind missing out on half the deductions allowed), anyone who has ever: bought a house, received any money for contract work, sold any stock, earned any sizable amount of interest, earned any dividends, used a car or possession for business, or done any of a hundred other fairly common things knows the joy of the full 1040. And that’s a joy that they get to enjoy for a longer time each year, as the code grows in complexity.

This year, in fact, we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of a recursive function in the capital gains worksheet: Box 22 depended upon Box 10, Box 10 depended upon Box 37, and Box 37 (naturally) depended upon Box 22. A literal Catch-22 right there in the 1040! So what did the taxpayer do: why fill out boxes in order over and over again until the numbers stopped changing. Yes, this year’s tax form required iterating over a recursive function. It’s official: advanced mathematics is now required to accurately fill out an American tax form. I guess we should just be thankful the function converges…this time.

So, enough whining. What should we do?

Scrap the damn tax code!

No band-aids, no simple patches like the mid-80s reforms, no more kicking the problem out for another decade or so. Scrap the cobbled together, rickety, ideologically-driven, overly-intrusive, economically regressive thing, and start again.

But what to replace it with? The Flat Tax? The Fair Tax? The As Yet Unknown Tax? No Federal Tax? (That last one’s for states rights fanatics like Angry Midwesterner.) Before I try to lay out a positive, let me shoot down some perennial red herrings:

We can’t have a [flat/Fair/no] tax – it’s regressive!
Now this objection can have a reasonable meaning, which is: the very poor must use the vast bulk of their money for necessities, and the very rich use almost none, so a tax code should respect that each tax dollar is a greater burden on the poor than the rich. And that reasonable objection has a simple and reasonable answer: set a personal deduction large enough to ensure that the poor pay little or no tax.

Sadly, most fans of “progressive” taxes don’t give a damn about the poor—they’re besotted by the sin of envy and want to soak the rich and damn the cost! For these folks, the answer above is worthless because it only benefits the poor, it doesn’t punish those evil, evil rich. You’ll pardon me if I see no reason to respect the wishes of a bunch of folks eager to punish the deadly sin they hate (greed) by enshrining the one they love (envy) in law.

Any tax code we come up with will just get hijacked again—and be just as complicated soon!
This is actually very reasonable, and a useful cautionary warning. But as an objection to doing something it’s pretty wrongheaded. Just because every system can be abused doesn’t mean that some aren’t better than others. Given that the current code kills a sizable forest every time they need to print a hard copy of it, I find it very hard to believe that much simpler systems will somehow be easier to corrupt.

Now is not the time for radical reform—we have massive deficits and are in a recession!
No, now is exactly the time for change, especially if those things are true. Taxes are, almost always, regressive economically: the more taxes the less growth and the greater the chance of recession. Lower taxes, and you spur growth. Ah, but simplify taxes, and you reduce the burden of complying ($200-$500 billion dollars annually), which lowers the effective tax burden (taxes plus fees to file taxes). So a simpler system would spur growth even without lowering taxes. Anyone who’s run their own business, done contract work on the side realizes this. The current system burdens the self-employed with significant costs.

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So, away with these objections, and on to the glorious future!

Well, actually, I don’t have a nicely laid out, detailed plan for tax reform any more than anyone else does. But, to avoid the label of coward, I’m willing to stick out my neck and recommend a general outline of one. First the general principles: the poor should not pay tax (they’re poor), those who work should not be punished (they’re industrious), those who invest should not be punished (they generate capital), those who start businesses should not be punished (they are the engine of growth).

So, the plan:

  1. A flat income tax of 25% Easy to calculate, easy to file.
  2. A standard personal deductible of $20,000 per adult and $5K per child. Make less than that? No tax for you. Creates these effective tax rates:
    Effective Rate by Income
      $20K $35K $50K $100K $250K $1 million
    Single 0% 11% 15% 20% 23% 24.5%
    Single Parent (2 children) 0% 3.5% 10% 17.5% 22% 24.25%
    Family (2 children) 0% 0% 0% 12.5% 20% 23.75%

    Progressive!

  3. No capital gains tax. (That’s right: 0%! Don’t whine too much though, lefties, look on down the page.
  4. No tax on interest or dividends. (That’s right: 0% But wait, progressives, you’ll get your day!)
  5. No corporate taxes. (That’s right: 0% here too! Think about it: corporations don’t pay taxes, they just pass those taxes on to shareholders, customers, or employees. If they simply avoid taxes through clever bookkeeping. Breathe steadily, lefties, good news follows!)
  6. Earned Income Tax Credit: reward the working poor who are stuck, for the moment, with low-paying jobs. Exact mechanic to be worked out, but we should be generous while always making it more profitable to take a better job!
  7. Nothing else. No other deductions. No tax loopholes. No tax shelters. No tax-free trusts. No mortgage deductions. You get a personal deduction, you pay 25% on what’s above it. That’s it.

Now, before I’m hauled outside, doused in environmentally friendly fair-trade organic vegetable oil, and set alight, let me point out why this is a win for the soak the rich crowd:

Who pays taxes in America? Despite campaign rhetoric, it ain’t the poor. In fact, it’s the rich. The top 10% of income earners (those making $103K and up) control around 46% of the wealth but pay over 70% of the taxes! This means, of course, that most of those nice deductions, exclusions, etc. benefit the wealthy. A 25% rate might seem like a tax break, since the current top rates range from 28% ($77K-$160K) to 35% (above $350K), but those rates on on taxable income—after deductions have had their day. A 25% rate on all income above $20K should compare pretty favorably to 28% on income left over after well above $20K in deductions have been applied.

So why would the rich approve? Because a flat tax allows them to calculate their burden easily, estimate the economic costs of various options easily, avoid expensive tax preparation and record-keeping, and eliminate the expensive audits or penalties which arise from the inevitable mistakes in the current ridiculously complicated tax environment.

And, best of all, eliminating compliance costs and flattening rates will spur an economic boom. Wealth, individual income, and tax revenues will rise, and the tax base will grow as new workers enter the pool.

My numbers are rough, and doubtless need fine-tuning. We’ll need a bunch of work to get things right, and we’ll have to work across the political divide to get a tax code that rewards hard work and investment without unfairly hurting hard-working blue-collar folks. But we can do it! We can revolt against this bloated tax code shoved upon us by a political class of lawyers and lobbyists and return to something simple and sensible. Fourteen states have done it, seventeen nations have done it, and we can do it too!

You may say I’m a dreamer
But we’re growing every day
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will keep its pay!

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First, review this fine cautionary tale available here, courtesy of the ACLU:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNJl9EEcsoE

Now, I am no great fan of the ACLU, but credit where credit is due, this piece sums up the dangers of all those clever national IDs, government administered programs, linked databases, and GPS-enabled devices nicely. In fact, just two short years later, much of what is portrayed already exists:

  • businesses use caller-ID to recognize phones and link to customer information
  • even if the government didn’t give it out, businesses would certainly use a national ID number as a key—just as they use the SSN currently
  • your home address, birthday, name, etc. are all already keyed to the current equivalent of a national ID—your SSN
  • where you work is almost certainly on file—didn’t they ask the last time you applied for credit or a loan?
  • cell phones with GPS currently do broadcast your location to services that request that information—unless you configure them not to
  • businesses already assign delivery areas or prices by risk of the neighborhood—as those living near shady areas know—and as crime stats become more instantly available, this can only increase
  • as businesses partner to offer shared customer incentives, exchanging information about recent purchases and coupon offers is becoming commonplace
  • certainly whether your cards are maxed out is easy—a quick query to each card could do that

And some things, which have not yet come to pass (as it were) are terrifyingly likely:

  • currently legislation protects your health care information, but either government-run healthcare or single-payer schemes would require releasing it to the government at the least
  • legislation to allow the government to regulate food and lifestyle choices for health is already proposed—once the government’s actually paying for health-care, what will happen
  • currently the health-care industry and insurance industry would love to be notified about people’s purchases and force them to sign waivers—unlike them, government can actually enforce such desires
  • in our climate of constant fear of terror attacks, does opening travel itineraries to public scrutiny seem farfetched?

Horrifyingly, the only thing which seemed utterly ridiculous was libraries ever voluntarily making your reading choices public. But amazon.com on the other hand…

Clearly some of what is portrayed is fine, even useful, but some is frighteningly Orwellian.

So where should the line be drawn? Where does the scenario presented cross the line from convenience to surveillance? As technology advances it seems increasingly impossible to effectively compartmentalize information, so should we assume that whatever the government knows about us will find its way into private hands? And just how much should the government know about us, anyway?

Discuss amongst yourselves!

It’s official: there’s a health care crisis in America. When all of the major candidates for President spend time talking about it, you know some solution is just around the corner. But, tragically, most of the common wisdom on what the problem actually is and how to fix it is 180° off course.

To understand that this true, why this is true, and how we came to be here, we first need to make a critical—but often forgotten—distinction:

What we care about is access to health care, not access to health insurance.

We shouldn’t give two cents about access to health insurance, except as a means to health care. Listen carefully to what all the politicians actually say: nearly all of the verbiage about universal coverage, universal access, etc. is focused on access to health insurance. Why? Because that’s something that government can actually promise, unlike access to health care. Short of enslaving all doctors, chaining them to desks, and scientifically distributing them around the country, there’s simply no way to ensure universal access to health care.

If you live in the middle of nowhere, for example, all the health insurance in the world does you no good if there aren’t any doctors for 500 miles. This is a problem in a surprising number of areas. In some regions the only neurosurgeons (for example) may be in large cities. The high cost of medical malpractice insurance has combined with natural market forces to increasingly limit specialists to lucrative big city markets. A growing problem in an age of increasingly effective but highly specialized medicine.

Or again, if the government’s brilliant solution to your lack of access to life-saving medicine reduces the available providers by capping what they can earn without capping their expenses (such as the aforementioned malpractice insurance), how exactly will that help you? What good does it do you to have every right to have some procedure only to find that no doctor is willing to perform it?

Or consider the dilemma for many in Canada. There, you have not only universal coverage, but the “right” to free comprehensive care. Unfortunately, you have no right to decide just what “comprehensive care” might be for any given condition. So, in some cases, you will be told to take some pain killers, shut up, and wait to die. In others, your operation may be scheduled in weeks to months due to shortages of facilities or personnel. All the problems, in short, of the worst possible HMO with absolutely no independent legal recourse.

The sad truth is that universal health insurance coverage will not solve our problems. Nearly universal health insurance coverage already exists in our system. (In fact, it’s part of the problem.) Out of 300+ million people in the United States, under 30 million citizens lack health insurance. That’s a 90%+ coverage rate, but somehow I suspect we don’t have anything like a 90% satisfaction rate with health care. In part because all of that health insurance actually makes decently priced quality health care harder to get. If you ever want to verify that for yourself, shop around for doctors offering to pay in cash, off the system. You’ll be surprised at the deals you’ll find, especially for routine things like office visits—which account for the bulk of most people’s health needs.

If we’re really serious about providing quality health care to as many people as possible, for the best possible price, we need to leave aside the rhetoric and actually look seriously at the real problems. So I propose to do just that over the next few weeks, examining the problems of consumer health insurance, high drug costs, malpractice insurance, and health care for the poorest Americans. If you’ll join me, I think you’ll be surprised at some of what you find, and I hope you’ll come to agree with me that our focus needs to shift to what really matters: the best health care possible for the most people at a reasonable cost.

Once upon a time, news trickled out into newspapers or magazines. Then radio brought news bulletins out on a twice or three-times daily schedule. Television merged the fast pace of radio with the graphic content of photographs but didn’t really accelerate things further. Over many years we doubled or tripled our daily dose, but that was about it.

Until cable. With the advent of CNN and Headline News, and all their successors we now had news on an hourly basis. Naturally the Internet would only take that further, with news now literally “on demand.”

So it was only a matter of time until some clever news agency merged various technologies to give us this: a fully embedded, Google map-based, interactive display of currently known hash houses in Florida:

http://www.miaminewtimes.com/php/specialreports/index.php?report_id=791046

Can a full merge of all this with Google Earth be far behind? Will we soon have “breaking news” layers for Google Earth allowing us to zoom in as events unfold? Will Google eventually stream live satellite coverage to allow us to watch police chases and shootouts in real time?

Is there even any downside? (Well apart from the unfortunate inevitability that some poor sap will have his house displayed for national scorn due to a mistyped address…)

Pretty soon will this scenario be not clever fantasy but simply the way it is?

If so, is that good or bad?

Discuss!

I’d like to kick off a new semi-regular feature here at the Angry Men, a celebration of Americans of all different stripes and backgrounds who have all, in their way, made America and the world a better place. They will be politicians, generals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors; famous, and obscure; figures of history and thoroughly modern folks. But together they will remind us of the diversity and unity of the United States, of our greatest principles and of the great promise of America: you are free to pursue your dreams as best you can.

Without further ado, let’s raise a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to our inaugural Great American: Walter Elias Disney:

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The first few decades of Walt Disney’s life reads like an almost stereotypical American success story: born the son of an immigrant, growing up across the Midwest in big cities and small towns, sneaking off to World War I as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross, hustling to get started in his chosen career, getting breaks from his brother and returning the favor, and making and losing businesses and fortunes. All by the age of 33.

But in 1934, Disney did something destined to change American entertainment forever, and catapult him to new heights: he produced a full-length animated film featuring both realistic human characters and fantastic cartoon characters. This doesn’t sound like much these days, but back then it was “Disney’s Folly” because it had never been done, and conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done. Disney bet the farm that conventional wisdom was wrong, and his competitors bet that he’d lose that farm.

Of course, as we know, Disney was right, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was wildly successful, playing to standing ovations and winning an Oscar (well, actually one large and seven small Oscars, in fact). More than a personal triumph, it ushered in the golden age of American animation, and set the stage for the staggering industry of animated features around the world. It also launched Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and bankrolled a skilled studio of master animators. Disney would go on to produce a whole cavalcade of classic animated films: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which brought the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Wind in the Willows to many for the first time), Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and many, many more. Many did not make much money, some were quite successful, but all have endured the test of time surprisingly well and stand as a tribute to Walt Disney’s vision that rich, complex stories could be told through animation.

After the Second World War, Disney brought his vision for a child’s fantasy amusement park to life in Disneyland, setting it on a huge lot and surrounding it by one of his favorite things in the world: a train. Throughout the 1950s Disney Studios worked on Disneyland and released major live-action and animated features. Disney also turned his eyes towards the stars and worked with NASA (and Werner von Braun) to promote space travel through films.

The 1960s saw Disney at the peak of his success, with Mary Poppins sweeping box offices and Disney debuting his vision of the future at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Not content with a one-time display of that vision, he laid the plans for an expanded and enhanced Disneyland known in development as “Disney World” and sited on 27,000 acres in Florida. Although plans included an expanded amusement park (to be known as the “Magic Kingdom”), resorts, and hotels, the centerpiece was to be Disney’s vision of the perfect future community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). In Disney’s expansive vision, EPCOT was to be a working future city, whose residents would focus on innovative science and advanced technology.

Sadly, Walt Disney would never live to see the fulfillment of this vision, as he died from lung cancer in 1966, just two years after beginning the new project. His brother Roy came out of retirement to manage the project (and company) and open the first stage of the new park, now formally called “Walt Disney World Resort” in October 1971. By December of that year, Roy too was dead.

EPCOT as envisioned by Disney never came to be, though the modern Epcot park does provide a showcase for future technologies, and embodies the spirit of international cooperation in its World Showcase. And Disney’s Celebration community, built by Disney Imagineering as a model planned community, comes closer to the original goal of EPCOT (though in a suburban rather than urban mode).

Of course, as we remember the man and his legacy we should not overlook the darker side. Walt Disney never trusted organized labor, and his prejudice led him to make unsubstantiated allegations during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. He spied on union activity for the FBI for years and may well have illegally intimidated union activists. He was, as many visionaries are, a notoriously difficult man to work with. In short, he was a man, with a full share of faults and limitations.

But he was also a visionary in the best American mode, with an optimistic and enthusiastic take on society, technology, science, and the future. He built places devoted to bringing joy to children and inspiring them to dream deeply. He gave the world the vast legacy of his dreams in film and concrete and has inspired millions around the world with a vision of pluralism, tolerance, kindness, optimism and joy. For all of these reasons, whatever his human faults and foibles, Walter Elias Disney is, indeed, one of the Best of Us.

UPDATE: Welcome Fark.com! After you read this, feel free to have a look around. You’ve probably already seen this and this, but check out this fine piece about the One Laptop per Child program, this one about that nutcase Chavez, and, of course, this classic challenge.

On Friday, a most remarkable thing happened. “Evel” Knievel, that most American king of daredevils, died. In bed. Of something utterly mundane. After a career of spectacular stunts and even more spectacular failures, injuries, and traumas, Evel’s end might have been that of any elderly American.

But, as the Washington Post writes, however mundane his death, his life remains “larger than life:”

Any time ABC showed a Sunday afternoon Knievel stunt on “Wide World of Sports,” you could expect half the neighborhood to show up in the cul-de-sac immediately afterward, in an act of instant emulation. Someone would get a piece of plywood or a couple of 2-by-4’s and a cinderblock. Everyone had their bikes (bicycles, that is — Huffys, BMXs, with the banana seats and faded Wacky Packages stickers) and would perform jumps. You could get the little kids to lie flat on the asphalt in a row next to the ramp. (I can jump all four of you.) Kids would jump until the wood broke, or, more wonderfully, a daredevil got hurt and ran home bleeding.

In a way, Evel inspired a generation (if not to greatness, at least to extremes). Whether they know it or not, the skateboarders of the 1980s, the Extreme sportsmen of the 1990s, and the “Jackasses” of the 21st Century all owe their debt to Evel Knievel. He moved daredeviltry away from actually succeeding at apparently dangerous tasks to attempting truly, spectacularly dangerous tasks. And because, by sheer force of showmanship, he succeeding in that shift, his failures never really damaged his legend.

Because the story of Evel Knievel isn’t about success, or failure. It’s about daring to do the (sometimes literally) impossible. Defying death, sense, and sometimes even physics to reach for a dream—even if it really can’t be done. If nothing else, Evel taught us that you can defy all the rules and, if not walk away from it, at least be carried off with a thumb held high. In Evel’s stunts, raw courage and optimism were set against brutal reality. And if, brutal reality usually won brutally, you never stopped hoping against hope that this time, just this once, Evel would prevail.

In that, Evel Knievel truly symbolized America, in all her glory and folly. And he symbolized America too in his final embrace of God and Jesus Christ, realizing at last that there are some things man need not face alone. In Evel was played out the longstanding paradox of America: materialistic and faith-driven, huckster and preacher, worldly-wise playboy and humble penitent. In those latter days, no less than before, Evel was quintessentially American.

Requiest in pace, Evel.

So on this day when Angry (and not-so-Angry) Americans of all sorts gather together to share food, family, and thanks, we Angry Men here wish everyone a Happy, Healthy, and Thankful Thanksgiving!

But, never content to simply wish you well, we also want to ask you: What do you give thanks for this year?

Answer however you wish: be partisan or pluralistic, secular or sectarian, serious or frivolous as you choose. Only share with us your thoughts and thanks this season.

To start things out, I’ll share my thanks this year:

  • For living in the greatest nation on earth, where we can all celebrate Thanksgiving in whatever way feels best to us, even if it’s no way at all!
  • For a 2008 Election season which promises to be fun and bloody, if not terribly edifying about the character of many of our leaders.
  • For our troops, especially those in peril abroad, who give us a loyalty and service we frequently don’t deserve as a culture.
  • For all those, throughout the world, who risk life, health, family, and property to oppose injustice, oppression, ignorance, and poverty: from Iraqis trying to rebuild their country in the face of terror and barbarism to Pakistanis trying to find a middle way between military dictatorship and rule by gangs, and everyone in between. May God bless them and their work.
  • For all of you who read our words, whether you agree with them or not, and especially for you who take the time to leave words of your own. Thanks for caring enough to read what we think and share what you think!